Fiction

Story: Ashes, Ashes

By Kathie Giorgio

LesbsLinda didn’t know how the urn got to Goodwill. She only knew that it cost her ten dollars and it would look perfect on the antique spool table in her living room.

Linda prided herself on being a scavenger. Only three pieces of furniture in her house were bought brand new. Her couch, her recliner, and her mattress. She considered her mattress only as an accessory; it was supported by the sleigh bed she found dusty on the back wall of a flea market booth, and bought for seventy-five dollars in St. Charles, Illinois. But everything else in her house, from furniture to knick-knacks and artwork, were carefully and passionately scavenged drop-offs, some antiques, some not, all unwanted, all throwaways found at flea markets and Goodwills and rummage sales.

She’d found the spool table under a pile of tools at an estate sale. Setting it in an empty corner of her living room, she graced it with a philodendron, but that wasn’t enough. Something else was needed; a vase, she thought, graceful and shapely and maybe even swirled with color. She went looking at Goodwill and she found a vase that seemed exactly right, on a wire shelf in the middle of Housewares.

Linda thought it more a piece of sculpture as she examined it. While it looked like a vase, its mouth was deeply enclosed, with a filled ridge going around in a circle. There didn’t seem to be any way to open it. The vase’s shape was lovely, with a flat top that spun down to a slim neck, then swirled out to an almost feminine body, curved and full. The color started as deep cobalt blue at its base, but as it flowed upwards, it lightened to gray and then a delicate shade of silver. Shot through all of it was a lacy filigree that didn’t seem to have a pattern, but spun as gracefully as any organized web. Linda nearly put the vase back, because it was useless, of course; with that top, she could never place flowers in it. But as she returned it to the shelf, an old poem from a college lit class slipped into her head. Ode to a Grecian Urn, by Keats.

Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness,

Thou foster-child of Silence and slow Time,

Sylvan historian, who canst thus express

A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:

What leaf-fringed legend haunts about thy shape

Of deities or mortals, or of both,

In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?

What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?

What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?

What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?

That was what finding these items was all about, really. Finding silenced pieces from lost homes, filled with tales that could only be imagined. Pulling the vase back down, Linda hugged it to her chest and wondered what legend haunted about its shape. At the cash register, she paid her ten dollars and carried the vase home. It looked beautiful on the spool table, nested in green and gold philodendron leaves, and that first night, Linda kept glancing at it, admiring it, and calling it her leaf-fringed legend.

It wasn’t until her friend Katy came over on a Friday night that another connection to the poem was made. “Linda, it’s not a vase, it’s an urn,” she said.

Linda brought two hand-painted wine glasses, another Goodwill treasure, to the antique steamer trunk she used as a coffee table. “Okay,” she said. “That’s interesting. Because I thought of Keats’ Ode to a Grecian Urn when I saw it.”

Katy poured the wine she’d brought to complement their meal. She knew Linda well enough to bring white, and Linda knew well enough to cook chicken. “Not that kind of urn,” Katy said. “An urn that you put people’s ashes in. When they die, you know, and are cremated.”

“No,” Linda said. She looked over at the urn, sitting in its special spot. The blue to gray and the feathered filigree gave it an air of mistiness. “It was at Goodwill. No one would bring someone’s ashes to Goodwill. They’d bury them.”

Katy shrugged, then brought the urn to sit on the couch between them. “See the way the lid seems to fit right inside the neck?” she said. “And there’s this little crevice running around? That’s where it was sealed. It’s an urn, Linda. It’s a dead person.”

Linda couldn’t believe it. She’d seen strange things before at Goodwill. Picture frames and albums still filled with photos of grinning and playing and posing children. Coffee mugs branded with “Number 1 Dad!” in bold red. Engraved silver champagne glasses, complete with the date of a 25th wedding anniversary. These things always made her sad, that they would end up at a donation center, a place where people dropped off all the things they no longer wanted. Who wouldn’t want photographs of a cherished child, or stemware celebrating twenty-five years of memories?

But ashes. A dead person. Why would ashes end up in Goodwill, instead of on someone’s mantel, or bedside table, or at the very least, in a graveyard?

“It can’t be,” she said, draining her glass.

“Well, look,” Katy said. “I’ll go across the street to the Walgreens. They probably have something there that will dissolve the seal. We’ll open’er up and see what’s inside. Even if it takes all night. Okay if I stay? I want to be here when you discover who’s in there.”

Reluctantly, Linda agreed. She wasn’t reluctant over Katy staying the night; she’d hoped for that. She always hoped for that, although they never made out-loud and concrete plans. She and Katy seemed to be one step short of making their relationship real. They would visit each other, one or the other would stay overnight, they’d share the same bed and a few hours of warmth and tenderness, and sometimes something more. What was that line from the Keats poem? What wild ecstasy? They found that wildness with each other, but when the daylight came, they dressed and resumed their friendship. Linda didn’t even remember when it started, actually; who made the first move, who seconded it. Their relationship had lasted this way for almost ten years, since they were first out of college and both started at the same accounting firm. And she knew that neither of them had ever seriously seen anyone else during that time, with the exception of a few odd dates here and there. With men, and it never lasted. Linda wondered if there was some law that said that accountants couldn’t be lesbians. She and Katy never breathed the word, not even to each other.

But still, Linda thought, nodding again toward Keats and the urn on the table, there were times when she was tired of being a foster-child of Silence and slow Time.

Katy returned from the drug store with a tube of goop that was supposed to melt the strongest of glues. Carefully, she filled the circle crevice at the top of the urn, and then they sat back and finished the bottle of wine, talking and examining the stuck lid every half hour, reapplying the goop when necessary. By midnight, there’d been no headway, even though Katy swore that she felt the lid give, just a little. They went to bed, promising each other that if they woke during the night, they would check the lid and pile on more goop.

But they didn’t go to sleep right away, of course. In the darkness and under Katy’s hands, Linda tumbled through ecstasy and desire and tenderness and lust and the softness of satisfaction. They didn’t say a word, but twisted their tongues and their limbs and molded together until it seemed not a cell separated them. The secret sex went on longer than usual, as one or the other would go to check on the urn, and then upon the return, would be ready to start all over again. Finally, though, they dropped off; Katy first, then Linda, after she lifted the sheet and turned on the light and looked longingly and openly at the body next to hers.

****

Linda was disappointed to discover that Katy was up first the next morning. She’d hoped that this time, since their night was so long and rolling, they’d wake up together, share a kiss, and in the light of day, recognize who they were. But instead, she woke empty, and so she pulled on her robe and went out to the living room.

Katy was there, already in jeans and a t-shirt, and she was prying at the lid of the urn with a bending butter knife. “Don’t break it!” Linda cried and bolted over.

“We’re almost there!” Katy said. She showed how a hole had opened up in the crevice.

“Well, I still want it in one piece. Put on more goop and let’s have breakfast. Maybe more will loosen up and we can get it open without hurting it.”

Katy groaned, but complied, setting aside her butter knife. Linda made pancakes and they ate them at the dining room table, each slipping looks to the urn as they talked. Linda almost expected it to suddenly bubble up and blow like a volcano.

But it didn’t. When the lid did give, it was with a small pop, the sound of a soda can being opened. One minute, Katy was prying, and the next, she was sitting back on the couch, the knife in one hand, the lid captured in the other. Jagged bits of glue stuck to the lid, but the urn seemed safe and intact. Katy set the knife and the lid on the trunk, then they again placed the urn between them on the couch.

Linda didn’t want to be the first to look inside. “So now what?” she asked.

Katy leaned forward, lowering her face over the slender neck and mouth of the urn. “I can’t see anything,” she said. “Get a flashlight.”

Linda did, but it didn’t help. When the flashlight pointed into the urn, Katy couldn’t see around it. When Katy’s face was over the urn, the flashlight only lit up her cheek. The opening was just too narrow. Katy picked up the urn and shook it.

They both heard the rattle.

“There’s something in there,” Linda said. Carefully, she reached inside, but her hand wouldn’t fit down the neck. “I can’t get to it.”

“We’ll have to dump it out.”

“Katy!” Linda clamped her fingers protectively over the mouth. “We can’t do that! What if it is ashes? What if they’re loose in there?”

“Then get a bowl. A big mixing bowl.”

Linda sighed, but agreed. Putting a bowl on the trunk, she watched as Katy carefully, carefully upended the urn and began to pour, looking like a child teetering a full jug of milk over cereal. Something slid from inside the urn, then stuck in the neck. A bit of plastic poked out.

“It’s a baggy,” Linda said. “It’s okay, it’s in a baggy.” While Katy held the urn upside down, Linda took two fingers and birthed the baggy out.

The baggy was zip-locked and filled with grayish-silver ashes, thin and delicate like sand. Flashes of white pressed against the plastic sides and Linda realized they were pieces of bone. Horrified, she dropped the baggy.

Katy quickly picked it up. She set both it and the urn on the trunk. “Well,” she said, “it’s a dead person.”

“It’s too small to be a person, isn’t it? Couldn’t it be a pet or something? A dog?”

Katy shrugged. “I’ve heard we burn down to next to nothing. What do you want to do? Put it back inside? We can seal it again, if you have super glue.”

Linda’s stomach threatened to turn. “No. No, I don’t want the ashes here. It’s not right for them to be here.” Quickly, she set the lid back onto the urn, blocking the ashes’ re-entry, and pushed it down until it felt snug. Then she returned the urn to the spool table.

“Well, then what are you going to do? Throw the ashes away?”

Linda thought about that, but that didn’t seem right either, even though it would be the easiest solution. “No. We need to do something with it. Something nice. Something respectful.” She got up to get them more coffee. When she returned, Katy had the baggy nestled on her lap.

“Something nice,” Katy said. She accepted the coffee, prepared just the way she liked it, Linda knew, and took a sip. “Have you thought about it?” she asked. “What you would like to do when you die? Where you’d like to go?”

Linda glanced at the baggy. “I always figured I’d end up in a cemetery. With all the other dead people. Isn’t that what’s supposed to happen?”

Katy stroked the ashes with one finger that Linda knew so well. The gentleness of that finger made her shiver. “I think I’d want something more,” Katy said. “Especially if I was cremated. You have more freedom then. I think…I think I’d like to be scattered somewhere. I don’t want to end up on someone’s mantel.”

“Or spool table.” Linda looked out the window at the gray fall day. “Water is nice,” she said. “You always hear about people being scattered in the ocean. I love being by the water.”

“I know that. You showed me your special spot by Lake Michigan.”

At this sudden intimacy, Linda looked at Katy, who smiled at her, then glanced quickly away. There was a stretch of beach, just south of downtown Milwaukee, that was Linda’s favorite place. Where the beach met up with the woods, there was a tiny alcove, still smooth with sand, but shaded by the trees, and blocked from view by anyone near the water. Linda could sit there and listen to the waves, relish the softness of the sand and the cool of the trees, and be deliciously alone. She brought Katy there, just once, during a hot August a couple years before. They wore swimming suits and cooled off in the always icy waters of Lake Michigan, before hiding away in the alcove. It was the only place outside of their bedrooms that they’d ever loved each other, and it was what Linda always thought about when she visited there now. How refreshing it was to be touched in the brightest of air, to be kissed and to look into Katy’s eyes in broad daylight. How wonderful. And how rare. Next to never.

“Maybe we should take her there,” Linda said.

Katy flattened her hand on the baggy. “Her?”

“Well…yes, her. We’ll call it a her.” She got up. “I’m going to shower, and then let’s go there. We’ll float her in the water. Do you want to –” Linda stopped short of inviting Katy into the shower with her. “Help yourself to more coffee or pancakes. There’s a few left.” She walked away as Katy began to smooth the baggy on her lap, making the ashes flat like dough, as if she intended to bake a pie. Linda dropped her robe halfway to the bathroom, still in sight of Katy, but she showered alone.

Since the weather was chilly and misty, and would be colder still at the lakefront, Linda chose a soft sweater and jeans and sneakers. She thought of the t-shirt Katy was wearing and she went out to suggest something warmer, but Katy had already pulled on a sweatshirt. She was sitting at the table, eating a pancake rolled up in a tube, and the baggy was next to her.

Linda was surprised to find herself suddenly feeling protective of the ashes. They seemed too near the edge of the table, and she slid them closer to the center. Glancing over her shoulder, she looked at the urn, now empty, sitting on the spool table. She thought briefly about sending the ashes afloat in it, but the urn looked right sitting there. Beautiful and shapely, the leaves of the philodendron curling around it. Leaf-fringed legend. She turned back to the ashes. The lake would be their container. Her container, whoever she was, trapped in the baggy. She would be washed, then evaporated to Heaven.

On the drive to the lake, Linda placed the baggy in her cup holder. She and Katy didn’t talk much, but both reached for the ashes if Linda had to brake sharply, or if she went around a curve. As they drew closer, Linda took a deep breath, touched the baggy, then rested her hand on top of Katy’s. Katy let it stay there for all of five seconds, then pulled away, supposedly to scratch her nose. When she returned her hand to her lap, she tucked it between her thighs. Linda thought about considering that an invitation, she’d slid her fingers between Katy’s thighs often enough in bed, but then she decided against it.

But still. Still, she wanted to. Have an invitation. And take it.

After Linda parked the car, they both reached for the baggy and then argued over who should carry it. Finally, Linda pulled the old ace from childhood, announcing, “She’s mine…I saw her first, and I paid for her,” and she took the ashes and tucked them into her jacket pocket. She held her hand over the baggy, making sure it wouldn’t fall out on the trek down the long flight of stairs to the beach. Katy sulked and lagged at first, but when they reached the bottom of the steps and began walking down the sand, she fell alongside. There was no one else out; the beach stretched empty in both directions. The breeze was sharp, bringing tears to Linda’s eyes.

Their steps squelched a bit as they walked beside the water. And then Katy reached into Linda’s pocket, felt for the baggy, then entwined Linda’s fingers with hers, the ashes pressed between them in their palms. Linda caught her breath, but didn’t say anything. She squeezed Katy’s fingers and felt a gentle squeeze back. “Careful,” Katy said. “If you squeeze too tightly, the bag will pop and she’ll end up in your pocket lining until the next wash.”

Linda laughed, the sound lost in Lake Michigan’s waves.

They walked to the large rock that Linda used as a marker to find her alcove. If she looked to her left, she knew the alcove was there, in a direct line to the wood’s edge. If she looked to the right, there was Lake Michigan, surging gray in the cool fall day. This was the place. She swung around and faced the water, taking Katy with her.

“How should we do this?” Katy asked as Linda removed the baggy from her pocket. “Should we keep her in her bag?”

“No.” Linda felt the slight weight of the ashes, the tender probings of the bones. “She needs to be freed.”

“But in this wind, she’ll blow back. Onto the ground, not the water.”

Linda considered. Then she returned the baggy to her pocket as she kicked off her shoes. “We’ll wade out a bit,” she said, rolling up her jeans. “Then we’ll bend close to the water, and you can use your hands to shield the ashes from the wind as I put them in. Some of her will end up on the beach, sure, but not all of her.”

The cold water bit like a dog as they stepped in, and both of them yelped. Linda felt her toes go numb first, but she kept moving forward until she was up to her knees. “Here,” she said, then bent low.

Katy bent too, and she funneled her hands, creating a pathway to the water. Her pinkies just barely touched the waves.

Carefully, Linda opened the baggy, then reached inside. She thought about just dumping the ashes, but she was afraid there would be too little control. So she reached in, gathered the ashes, held the woman, then let her sift through her fingers into the tunnel. The ashes were soft, floaty like feathers or the bit of cotton pulled out of an aspirin bottle. The pieces of bone pressed into Linda’s skin, bounced against Katy, and then landed with the quietest of plunks into the water. Linda felt the woman go, felt her freed, felt her slipping into the water and her soul swimming away like a mermaid. Swimming, then rising again, like Icarus, to the sky.

When the baggy was empty, both Linda and Katy stepped back. For a second, the last of the ashes floated on the water, the silver turning to grey turning to black and then disappearing. Silently, Linda and Katy made their way back to shore and put on their socks and their shoes, rolled down their jeans, and then they looked out again at the water.

“Katy,” Linda said. “Katy, I don’t want to end up like that.”

“Like what?” Katy glanced at her, then at the empty baggy in Linda’s hand.

“Put to rest by strangers. Left in an urn in Goodwill, and then buried by strangers. I need to have someone who cares.”

Katy nodded. “I care,” she said, and she slung an arm over Linda in a girlfriend hug. A daytime let’s-be-safe hug. They were such good friends, weren’t they? Such good friends. Friends who sometimes experienced wild ecstasy. In secret. “Let’s go back,” she said.

But Linda stopped. “No,” she said. “No, here, Katy.”

When Katy turned, Linda leaned into her. She raised her face, brought her hands around Katy’s neck, slipped her fingers under her hair, and she pressed for a kiss. At first, Katy resisted, but then her face softened, and their tongues sealed them together. Linda felt the push of Katy’s body into her own, felt the way her curves slid into Katy’s valleys, felt Katy’s valleys slip into her curves. They kissed like the waves of Lake Michigan, full and rushing, and then Katy’s hands were on Linda’s waist, up under her sweater, and gracing her breasts with that gentlest of touches.

“Let’s go to your alcove,” Katy whispered.

“No,” Linda said again. “No, here, Katy.”

They made love in the sand, their warm skin meeting the cold, and their lips and tongues becoming mixed with the grit and each other. When Linda cried out, she cried out into free air, her voice released not in the darkness of her room, but the light and the mist and the smell of Katy’s hair as it tumbled around her.

And when it was over and they dressed and walked to the car, it was hand in hand. And hand in hand, they kissed luxuriously as Linda leaned against the car and Katy held her there.

They were quiet on the way back, but Katy didn’t pull away as Linda continued to hold her hand.

****

That night, nearer to morning, they lay side by side on their backs, touching at their shoulders, their hips, and their feet. Katy’s eyes were closed; Linda stared at the ceiling. She knew Katy was awake by the constant warm pressure of her body.

Linda thought of the urn, sitting in the corner of her living room, embraced by the setting moon and the green philodendron. She thought of the ashes, of the woman, spreading out over the great lake, and the air working in tandem with the water, raising her, releasing her, until she filled the sky. Linda hoped she was happy. Linda hoped where she was now, she wasn’t alone.

“Katy,” she said.

Katy rolled her head toward Linda, then her body followed suit, until she draped herself over Linda’s skin, her arm over Linda’s breasts, her leg over Linda’s thighs.

“Move in with me,” Linda said. “Marry me,” she said. “Stay with me forever.”

Katy said nothing, but her arm tightened.

Linda faced her, and she kissed her gently. Katy’s eyes were open now, wide, and Linda locked their noses together, looking directly into her gaze. Keats came back. “Katy, I’m tired of being an unravished bride of quietness. Ravish me. I want to be loud. God, I love you!”

Katy’s eyes filled and Linda was reminded of the rolling waves that afternoon, rolling up, then over, then up again. Linda let her eyes fill too, and their tears met between their cheeks.

“Okay,” Katy said. Her arms relaxed. She stopped struggling to escape.

And Linda waded in knee-deep into their flowery tale, basked in the rhythm of their rhyme. They turned on the lights and ravished and recognized each other and Linda laughed loud and clear into the brightness.

THE END

*****

(Kathie Giorgio’s first novel, “The Home For Wayward Clocks,” was released in 2011 by the Main Street Rag Publishing Company, and has received the Outstanding Achievement recognition by the Wisconsin Library Association Literary Awards Committee and has been nominated for the Paterson Fiction Award.  Her short story collection, “Enlarged Hearts,” was just released in April 2012 by the Main Street Rag Publishing Company as well.

The sequel to “The Home For Wayward Clocks,” is titled “Learning to Tell (A Life)Time” and will be released on September 1, 2013.  The book will be debuted at the 2013 South East Wisconsin Festival of Books.)

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